A package of sprats, vodka, buckwheat, matches, candles, a string and a piece of soap – perhaps not the perfect present for Christmas, but in the Siberian city of Tomsk the $29 parcels are proving a hit with those who fear that the end of the world (as we know it) is imminent. As the NY Times recently reported, doomsday prophecy is currently ripe in Russia. The article attributes this to a Russian ‘penchant for mystical thinking’ but as we know, fears – or perhaps fascination – surrounding the end of the Mayan calendar are global. Even if the way the end is ‘imagined’ is rooted in a society’s religious or folk culture, levels of apocalyptic engagement are not constant. Waves of doomsday prophecy seem to require a catalyst. In the case of the Mayan calendar, it’s all to do with numbers. Numbers also play a significant part in Russian apocalypticism, but as I show below, it’s not perhaps the whole story.
In the course of my research into religious groups in the Soviet Union in the years following the Second World War, I came across several reports suggested fears of an imminent end to the world were growing. To the alarm of Soviet officials, rumours of a new war predicted in the scriptures were spreading. One rumour claimed that if America and Turkey went to war against the USSR, Soviet power would dissolve: ‘It is written in the scriptures that before the end of the world there will be three wars, after which there will be one king for the whole earth and this is what is happening.’  A 1950 report spoke of a wave of ‘mass mysticism’ sweeping through the western regions of the country. In other regions, work on collective farms had been seriously disrupted as people began to prepare for the end of the world.
Why was this happening with such intensity in 1950? As suggested, it’s partly to do with numbers. One of the rumours based its predictions on the following calculation: 1950 was bound to be a fateful moment for the country, it was claimed, because the numbers 1, 9, 5, and 0 added up to 15, as had the cataclysmic years of 1914 and 1941 (the year Nazi Germany had invaded the USSR). (It’s also true, of course, that 1923 and 1932 add up to 15, years without quite the same symbolic power kin Soviet history.)
Numerology was important in popular culture, but surely the symmetry of 1+9+5+0 with 1+9+1+4 and 1+9+4+1 was not cause enough in itself for these fears?
With the outbreak of the Korean War in the summer of 1950 and the growing climate of tension that had been building over the preceding years, it seems to me that doomsday prophecy reflected fears relating to recent global events, as well as the power of numbers. In Soviet culture, the arrival of the atomic age was trumpeted in the press, and cold war tensions were ratcheted up with constant references to the belligerent war-mongers on the other side of the iron curtain, intent on destroying the peaceful life Soviet citizens craved. With memories of the Second World War still so fresh and painful – millions of Soviet soldiers and civilians had died between 1941 and 1945 – it is hardly surprising that ordinary people began to draw on popular and religious culture to articulate their fears about this dangerous new age.
I am currently writing a longer piece about these ‘atomic anxieties’ but for those interested I have also blogged about them elsewhere: Russian history blog.